King Kalākaua’s Newest Birthday Gift Arrives This Week at ‘Iolani Palace
Cultural expert and feather artist brings ancient art to life at the only royal residence in the U.S.
Video: Aaron K. Yoshino
Feather artist Kawika Lum-Nelmida spent hundreds of hours carefully wrapping tiny near-identical bundles of feathers that will come together as two new kahili displayed in King Kalākaua’s bedroom at ‘Iolani Palace. The feather standards, symbolic of royalty, are to be installed this week, just in time for the king’s 182nd birthday on Nov. 16, 1836.
Lum-Nelmida constructed an estimated 3,000 bundles of black rooster feathers to create the two new kahili dedicated to the king. He chose the particular arrangement—flipping the feathers to point up—to reflect the style of the king and the rest of his bedroom. “He was a progressive thinker,” Lum-Nelmida says. “Look around his bedroom: All the furniture comes to a point,” while the furniture in other rooms is more rounded.
In Kalākaua’s time, the feathers would likely have come from a now rare or endangered bird or one that would now be difficult to source, such as an ‘iwa. “We’ll use things that are plentiful,” he adds, weaving the feathers as he talks at the Kalihi headquarters of the Pa‘i Foundation, whose mission is to preserve and perpetuate Hawaiian cultural traditions for future generations.
The palace, best known as the official royal residence of the Hawaiian monarchy, is now preserved as a museum. The royal family did have other homes more suited to everyday living but the palace remains the cultural centerpiece from that time. Lum-Nelmida is continuing a tradition of artists enriching the palace through new works inspired by traditional art.
“It’s three feathers per bundle and there’s roughly 1,500 to 1,600 bundles per kahili,” Lum-Nelmida explains as he fashions each element. He wraps each bundle onto recycled wire hangers with tape. The adhesive covers the base of the feathers, which is most attractive to bugs, and the tape is hidden in the completed kahili.
Before he starts working, he cleans, washes and treats the feathers. “Once they’re assembled, we’re going to put them in an airtight bag one more time,” again, to keep bugs away.
Video: Aaron K. Yoshino
To add another layer, Lum-Nelmida says, kapa-maker Dalani Tanahy is weaving a traditional bark cloth for the bottom of the kahili, instead of using more modern fabrics.
Video: Aaron K. Yoshino
Lum-Nelmida says he learned about feather lei-making while a Hawaiian Studies student at the University of Hawai‘i in 1997. In 2013, he was awarded a master’s apprenticeship through the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts with his hula master, Paulette Kahalepuna.
Lum-Nelmida’s day job is working as a flight attendant, which sometimes allows him to visit other cities and countries and study cultural artifacts there.
Back at the palace, determining the color, style and even the size of the feather standards for the reconstruction took detective work. ‘Iolani Palace historian/docent educator Zita Cup Choy explains she, Lum-Nelmida and other researchers pored through books, newspapers and letters, to find any description they could from that time period. Often writers of the time recorded what was happening: who was there, what they said or did, but neglected to provide details of the setting, including any details of the color of the kahili he re-created.
“The black-and-white-photo of the kahili in the reflection of the mirror? That’s all I had to go on,” Lum-Nelmida says. He judged the size based on the known height of the bed frame and estimated the hues of the feathers by comparing the reflected partial view of the kahili with the blue fabric hanging nearby.
Hawaiian cultural protocol calls for new items to be introduced into the palace in the evening, following the practice of work being done under the cover of darkness, palace officials say. Lum-Nelmida who studied feather craft under other cultural practitioners, says, because of the scope of the pieces, the final assembly will be done on the property, hours before the evening installation.
Although Lum-Nelmida grew up making lei, he hadn’t worked with feathers until college. He recently completed works for museums in Edinburgh, Scotland and Stuttgart, Germany. “They are adding to their collections,” he explains. And that’s part of a recent trend as museums become more cognizant of the cultural significance of their collections. “We are seeing that some museums are starting to ask for replicas so the originals can (be preserved in the back) but they still have something on display,” Lum-Nelmida says.
For this project, he’s also working on a different style and color of kahili for Queen Kapi‘olani’s bedroom, which was decorated in maroon. “Her feathers will face down and be lighter gold brown.”
That pair is also destined for display at the palace, beginning in February.
“One day I would love to make something out of our native birds,” Lum-Nelmida says, adding that he won’t do that until he’s certain that the native bird population is strong enough to sustain catch-and-release feather gathering. He says many of us can do our part to encourage healthy native bird populations, beginning with something as simple as finding out what plants in your neighborhood will help sustain the birds.
“If they have more food, we would have more of them,” Lum-Nelmida says. “If we all do little things, then it becomes one big thing.”